She Began to Sing to Me

June 17, 2011

The wisdom of a mother’s song remains a mystery, until her daughter makes it her own.

In writing The River Witch, I wanted to explore the timelessness of that core feminine wisdom, passed down through the experiences, memories and traditions of several very different communities of women. What made them the same? What made them different?

Music is very prevalent in my own memories and specifically the hymns I recall from my childhood. One of the most poignant and quietly influential musical traditions in America is the Sacred Harp. Singing and dinner on the grounds still take place in many communities all across the United States, and in other places in the world.

The main character, Roslyn Byrne began to reveal herself to me by reflecting on the music of her childhood as part of a congregation that sang from the Sacred Harp songbook. In the prologue, she is haunted by the loss of her southern Appalachian heritage as part of her identity. As the novel progresses the music becomes a guiding voice, the wisdom of her grandmother.

“These were the first things I heard, the sounds of women and water on a cool, November morning just south of the Cumberland River. My grandmother and two ladies from the Glenmary Baptist church sat in the living room and sang number 159 from the Sacred Harp as my mama labored. Later, the midwife who was also a Keller cousin, told the story of how there’d been a storm that flooded the hollow and the rising water threatened to come in the door all night. Stranded in that little house for three days, they swaddled me in a flour sack quilt, decided what to name me, and predicted all the days of my life. Granny Byrne always said they’d never ate as well, fellowshipped as sweetly, or sang with hearts that full of the Spirit.

I was a grown woman, lost and stranded by my choices, before I realized I’d forgotten that story. And then I heard my Granny Byrne. Day and night, she began to sing to me again, an old song, a lesson of water and time. 


Does music play a part in your own sense of place and identity?

8 Responses to “She Began to Sing to Me”

  1. I grew up in a Baptist school in Tennessee, so I can relate to many of your novel’s themes. Can’t wait to read it, Kim; your title draws me in alone!

  2. Wow, Kim, I just love this. Your excerpt literally gave me goosebumps. Lovely. I can’t wait to read The River Witch.

  3. Wow, Kimberly. This sounds wonderful. Loved your writing sample and the video piece on the Sacred Harp (i’m not familiar with it, but you’ve intrigued me. My upbringing was Evangelical, so the holy rollers in my church sang to the hilltops, as well, even if it wasn’t pitch-perfect.) In fact, those hymns from my protestant upbringing are in my first novel, so YES, music plays a huge role in my identity and in my fiction. How can it not, really? As your video and your words illustrate, there is something completely electrifying about singing, so personal, so vulnerable, so ALIVE!

    • Thanks, Melissa. Music for Roslyn, the main character, represents her conflict. She has left her Appalachian roots as a child, when a gift for dance lifts her and her mother out of poverty. She struggles with the two different worlds and the different types of music illustrates this on internal and external levels. How the other characters respond to her music is telling of who they are, their struggles, and their expectations and disappointments. While writing THE RIVER WITCH, I was amazed how music showed up in my own life. Along with Sacred Harp music, I often listened to a song called OH CUMBERLAND on a Nitty Gritty Dirt Band album, and ALL ROADS TO THE RIVER by Kathy Mattea, while I was writing Roslyn. xoxo

  4. Your book sounds absolutely unique and wonderful! I’ll be looking so forward to reading it & just added it to my “TBR” list on my desk. Thank you for this small & wonderful glimpse!

    • Aw, thanks, Julia! And thanks for passing this neat challenge on through Jolina! I love seeing all the posts, the authors thoughts, and the recommendations for new blogs to follow!

      When do we get to see some from what you’re working on??

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